Drones & The Never Ending War Against “The Barbarians”

Drones & The Never Ending War Against “The Barbarians”

Learning From The History Of War In Combatting ISIS

By Professor Daniel Brunstetter (University of California Irvine)

April 1, 2015         Marines/Flickr.

This article is part of The Critique’s exclusive The Great War Series Part I: Gaza, Isis and The Ukraine      


The ongoing war against the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria has been framed as a conflict against evil “barbarians” – those whose acts and values are considered the opposite of “civilization”. The atrocities committed by ISIS – beheading journalists, mass execution of civilians and prisoners, selling women and children into slavery, and genocidal violence against minority groups – have been described as “unfathomable acts of cruelty”[1] committed by those who hold onto a “depraved, violent, and oppressive ideology.”[2] If ever there was a war against modern day barbarians, this fits the bill.

CNN: Kerry Says U.S Will Help Fight ISIS Barbarity

But the war against ISIS is a curious one. Despite the stakes – preventing the establishment of this particular brand of Islamic caliphate surely must be a priority if human rights have any meaning in the world today – the U.S. has declared on numerous occasions that it will not put combat troops in harm’s way.

CNN: ISIS Argues For War Against ISIS

Rather, its participation in the war has been limited to employing air power – in particular drone technology – to aid local Kurdish fighters and the Iraqi army in an epic struggle to halt ISIS’s lightening advances, which saw them take control of large swaths of land. But the goal is not simply to take back the cities ISIS conquered. As Obama stated in a September 2014 speech justifying the initial use of military force:

The New York Times: Obama ISIS Speech

“Our objective is clear. We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy… we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists…” But doing so “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our airpower and our support for partners on the ground.”[3]

Is this the future of just war – a drone war that keeps U.S. troops safe while exposing others to the dangers of battle against the “terrorists” who are “unique in their brutality”?[4] Can this really defeat ISIS, or are we headed for another perpetual war, like the one currently being waged against Al Qaeda?

PBS News Hour: Obama Speech On War Powers

In this essay, I argue that framing the war against ISIS as a conflict against barbarians defines it as a conflict in which victory is defined as the total annihilation of the enemy. However, the turn to a strategy based primarily on air power (and especially drones) insulates the U.S. from the costs of the war. This, coupled with the backlash that American involvement in another Middle East war inspires – i.e. terrorist recruitment – risks turning this into a perpetual conflict. I conclude with some insights from a forgotten chapter of the just war tradition that could shed light on how to alter the discourse.


The Nature of the Enemy

The meteoric rise of ISIS has been the stage for acts of killing that have shocked the moral conscience. While the death of soldiers in warfare is the morbid norm, civilians are supposed to be spared, at least whenever possible. International law prohibits intentionally targeting civilians, reflecting a norm found in the western just war tradition, but also in Islamic thought.

Thus, that ISIS has intentionally killed civilians and prisoners of war already runs counter to the norms that ought to govern warfare in the post World War II era. And yet the spectacularly cruel nature in which they have done so has been a deep source of discomfort.

VICE News: The Islamic State

Describing their acts as cruel is undeniable. But the West has gone one step further. In the U.S., the UK, Canada, and France, it is commonplace to find ISIS referred to in the press as “barbarians” or terrorists committing “barbaric” acts.[5] [See Adamson on rethinking the condescension of such terms as “medieval”] And it is not just in the press, but in the vocabulary of elected officials as well. However, in the context of the western understanding of the ethics of war, calling members of ISIS barbarians places them into a very specific strain of just war thinking.

CNN: Biden Says ISIS Destined For Gates OF Hell

Thus, when Vice President Joe Biden vowed that America would hunt ISIS “barbarians” to the “gates of hell”, he taps into just war thinking as old as the celebrated Christian thinker Francisco de Vitoria.[6]

Writing in the sixteenth century, Vitoria famously defended the rights of the New World “barbarians” against the Spanish invaders. Challenging arguments suggesting the Spanish Crown had the right to wage war against the native populations because they were barbarians – those who appeared to lack reason and whose customs violated the natural law – Vitoria argued that their barbarism in itself was not a just cause to wage war against them.

Some scholars see Vitoria’s thought as being at the origins of international law whereby even those perceived to be barbarians have sovereignty in the international realm.[7] Referring to this aspect of Vitoria’s argument, Michael Walzer identifies Vitoria’s role in changing the policy of the Spanish Crown as a “heroic moment from the history of the academic world.”[8]

But Vitoria’s initial rejection of just war against the New World natives is only the first part of his reflection on waging just war against barbarians. He (problematically) goes on to suggest that one might wage a just war against them to save the innocent from the clutches of their barbarism, and potentially, if needed, to replace their leaders.

Raul Hernandes Gonzalez/Flickr
Raul Hernandes Gonzalez/FlickrFRANCISCO DE VITORIA

This kind of just war against barbarians, however, was predicated on the belief that the New World natives would eventually convert to Christianity and become equals in a Western society (and hence cease to be barbarians). Problematic as this argument may be, Vitoria reserves a different, and arguably more polemical, argument for those who are irrevocably barbarian.

While war, he admits, is generally waged to “produce peace … sometimes security cannot be obtained without the annihilation of the enemy. This is particularly the case in wars against the infidels, from whom peace can never be hoped for on any terms.” Against such an enemy, a war of “wholesale destruction” is permissible. [9]

For Vitoria, such a barbarian threat came from Christian Europe’s nemesis, the “Saracens” – a term widely used at the time to denote Muslims.[10] Having sacked Constantinople a generation before, the armies of the Ottoman Empire were marching on the gates of Vienna.

According to one of Vitoria’s contemporaries, the European imagination perceived this type of barbarian as “a disruptive force threatening civilization – an inversion of [the] beloved principles of justice, freedom, and good government.”[11] It is against such barbarians that a war of annihilation could, historically, be waged.

There is something of Vitoria’s stark conclusion that tolls solemnly for the current ISIS conflict. Let’s leave aside the Christian imagery and explore the deeper issue at stake. If we accept that barbarians are those who irreconcilably reject “truth” (let’s call modern day truth that of a general respect for human rights) by committing great acts of cruelty that violate the rights of innocent civilians, represent the antithesis of civilization, and are a threatening force bent on destroying “us”, then if civilization is to flourish, waging war to annihilate “them” seems like a just course of action.

From the U.S. perspective (and now the Jordanian and Egyptian perspectives too, after recent ISIS acts of cruelty), waging war against such barbarians is not simply a campaign to weaken them to allow for more favorable peace negotiations, but paramount to a just war of eradication that will, to quote Obama, “take time.” But how much time is too much time? Can a perpetual war be a just war?


“Just Say No!” to Ground Troops…

There are several very good reasons why the U.S. is unwilling to send ground troops to fight ISIS. First, the U.S. occupation of Iraq was one of the major causes of ISIS’s meteoric rise. Bush’s precipitous invasion was the catalyst for regime change and years of instability during which the U.S. fought a counter-insurgency campaign against Baathist rebels. Indeed, ISIS actually coalesced as a group in U.S. prisons within Iraq.[12]

Given the prolonged presence of U.S. ground troops in Iraq did not succeed in rooting out anti-government rebels, but rather fueled the fires of counter-insurgency, there is scant belief that sending troops back will lead to a different outcome. Rather, the U.S. is placing its hopes that a unified Iraqi government can, with the help of U.S. airpower, defeat ISIS and re-establish constitutional and territorial integrity.

A second very good reason is that the U.S. can conduct a drone campaign with no risk to its own troops while taking advantage of drones’ well known technological capability to be very accurate and arguably spare civilians from unnecessary collateral damage[13]. Apart from the heightened risk of PTSD that drone operators have been reported to exhibit, there is very little human cost for Americans in operating a long, drawn out campaign. Drones thus insulate U.S. forces from the brute destruction of the conflict.

Drones are being used in conjunction with traditional air power to strike key targets such as logistics depots, command and control centers, armed convoys, weapons caches, and ISIS troops. They can hit these targets with comparatively greater accuracy than other forms of air strikes, especially when targets are embedded in civilian areas.

France 24: Drones

But drones bring an added dimension – the ability to track and target key leaders. The drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen have controversially showcased how drones can be used in targeted killing campaigns to decapitate the leadership of terrorist groups. Notwithstanding debates regarding whether such strikes are even legal according to international law, the U.S. has undertaken hundreds of strikes against Al Qaeda targets in these regions. To what end, one might ask?

Jeh Johnson, then General Counsel of the United States Department of Defense, gave a speech titled “The Conflict Against Al Qaeda and its Affiliates: How Will It End?” aimed at answering that very question. In it, he argued:

Jeh Johnson Oxford Union Address

“There will come a tipping point – a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al Qaeda and its affiliates have been killed or captured, and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that al Qaeda as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed. At that point … the law enforcement and intelligence resources of our government are principally responsible, in cooperation with the international community – with our military assets available in reserve to address continuing and imminent terrorist threats”[14].

I am not sure we will ever reach such a tipping point. But even assuming we do one-day defeat Al Qaeda, this will not resolve the struggle against extremists who hijack Islam. As we know from drone strikes elsewhere, the targeted killing campaign leads to anti-American sentiment, which could inspire terrorism at home and abroad.

ISIS is a case in point. The American use of force to combat ISIS extremism has served as a point of departure for new groups of extremists –in Libya, Algeria, Afghanistan and beyond – in order to take a stance against perceived western imperialism.

Presumably the U.S. could continue to use drones to kill as many as it takes for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to take back Iraq, city by city. How long that will take is anybody’s guess, but one can see the logic behind such a strategy. Even though the U.S. arguably caused the instability by invading Iraq, if the current Iraqi regime is going to gain legitimacy on the ground (and not just by the ballot box), then it needs to bare the brunt of the responsibility (and the brunt of the human costs) in reestablishing territorial integrity. Following this reasoning, another American occupation would be little more than a catalyst for future counter-insurgency movements.

But even if ISIS were driven from Iraq, two major concerns remain: the quagmire of Syria and the ability of ISIS to recruit new members who come to the Middle East to fight or take the fight to the streets of western cities such as Paris, Copenhagen, Sydney and beyond.


… “Just Say Yes” to Perpetual War!

In combatting ISIS, the U.S. has followed the precedent it set with drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen to pursue terrorist threats anywhere in the world. Thus, it has already carried out numerous strikes on key targets in Syria despite the fact that its allies, especially the UK, have resisted such a move.

But the key question is: can one actually defeat ISIS in Syria by air power alone, that is, without taking out the Assad regime as well (or agreeing to let the embattled leader remain, which the U.S. has long since rejected as an option)?

President Obama has just gone to Congress asking for permission to use “enduring” military force against ISIS for a three-year period without boots on the ground, but already both Democrats and Republicans are up in arms. The former fear allowing the President to entangle the U.S. in another Middle East war, while the latter reject tying his hands by codifying too many limitations.[15]

And both may be right. Too little force – a permanent air campaign with drones leading the way – will degrade, but not ultimately defeat, ISIS in Syria (and certainly not resolve the civil war which has led to so much human suffering). Too much force (i.e. a large-scale intervention with ground troops) may lead to an initial military victory, but the subsequent regime change, occupation, and lengthy reconstruction period looms menacingly on the horizon. If the Iraq and Afghanistan cases are any indicator, such a period will be characterized by a period of instability during which new iterations of extremism will likely arise [See Davidovic’s proposed solution to this dilemma in ISIS and Just War].

Localized extremism is, however, only part of the problem. The unique challenge ISIS poses is its ability to attract foreign fighters from the West to join the conflict. Estimates suggest that 20,000 foreign fighters have joined the fight in recent months, with more than 3000 coming from Western countries.[16] How does one defeat this?

CNN: ISIS Recruitment

A sustained drone campaign is not the solution. The famous “tipping point” discussed above can only be arrived at if there are limited numbers of fighters that drones could eventually wipe out, but the reality is that new recruits emerge from the very violence that destroys their predecessors.

Thus, the war against barbarians that is meant to annihilate ISIS will also serve to replenish their ranks in a cruel cycle of violence that begets more violence. As one expert put it, “A campaign which is based on drones is quite good at dealing with the symptoms but it does little with the causes of an insurgency. In fact, it might exacerbate them. [Drones] are an attractive tactic but they are not necessarily a good strategy.”[17]

By not dealing with the causes, a strategy based on drones postpones the threat to us by continually taking the fight in distant lands to them, in what amounts to a perpetual war of “us” verses “them”.

Where, then, does this leave us? How do we combat ISIS if we ought not send in ground troops because occupation is counter-productive, but using drones leads to a perpetual war?



The call for a limited war that does not engulf the U.S.in an all out ground war seems like a prudent choice. And yet the pledge to wage war to eradicate these “barbarians” who violate the very truths of humanity also seems like a necessary course of action. Is it possible to wage a limited war that will destroy ISIS? I don’t think so.

In conclusion, I want to provide a few thoughts of guidance, steeped in the wisdom of the just war tradition and its historical antecedents of western wars against barbarians, to shed light on an alternative viewpoint.

One of Francisco de Vitoria’s contemporaries who also defended the “barbarians” of the New World wasBartolomé de Las Casas. While scholars have also lauded Las Casas for cutting against the intellectual and political grain of his native Spain to defend the New World “barbarians” against the marauding conquistadors, he is all but forgotten in just war circles even though his ideas were forged in the midst of wars in both the New and Old World.[18]

Adam Jones/Flickr
Adam Jones/FlickrPortrait of Bartolome de las Casas, Seville, Spain

Las Casas is often portrayed as a famous defender of the rights of barbarians. But, as I have argued elsewhere, outside the context of the New World, there is a bellicose side to his view of barbarians – namely the right to wage just war against the recalcitrant barbarians of the Old World.[19]

Las Casas, like Vitoria, saw the threatening Ottoman Empire as “the truly barbaric scum of the nations.”[20] They had, he observed, “a deep-seated wish that the whole religion of Christ had long ago been blotted out, and generally, in every locality and at all times, they do their utmost to perturb the lives of Christians”.[21]

Las Casas’s views were likely colored by the epic sack of Constantinople in 1453 and ongoing threat to Europe posed by the Ottoman armies, but his tempered view of just war to counter these enemies offers important insights.

Influenced by his experience of the horrors of war in the New World, Las Casas brings to our attention that war inevitably tarnishes the image of our values, for those whose ideas “accompanied by the clatter of arms… by that very fact are unworthy to have their words believed”.[22]

He also reminds us that before striking out against the cruelty of others, no matter how cruel they may be, we must first of all look deeply inwards to recognize our own barbarism because others will see it even if we do not.

He was keen to point out that in response to the cruelty of conquistadors, the native populations “kill those who give them reason for killing… they kill them not because they are preachers but because they are Spaniards, of the same nation, and in the same company of those fierce men who are their enemies.”[23]

This is not to say such killing was justified; Las Casas’s point was to implore us to look inward to recognize how our excessive or wayward violence can serve as a pretext for the violence they perceive as just.

And finally, even when war may be necessary (which Las Casas thought it was against the Turks), he reminds us that it must be waged with restraint: “By the law of [self-defense], the arms of all peoples are raised against their public enemies… and by inflicting equal destruction we teach them to fear our men and to avoid injuring us so that they pay for the injuries they have inflicted on us.”[24] Equal destruction implies inflicting a proportionate response, not a war of eradication, which by definition cannot be proportional. Nor can a perpetual war, for that matter.

How can we apply Las Casas’s wisdom in the current context? I think a turn to Las Casas obliges us to rethink the way we frame the war against ISIS and to better understand whom we are fighting.

Clearly, it is just to use force to drive ISIS out of Iraq by helping the Iraqi government. However, when it comes to Syria, a just war of eradication – which may well translate into a perpetual war of attrition if drones are the weapons of choice – is highly problematic. Rather, the focus must be on a different kind of eradiation – namely eliminating the ability of ISIS to recruit future soldiers.

Here is where the rhetoric of “just war against barbarians” is problematic. First of all, we have our own share of barbaric acts (hidden behind closed doors or written off as collateral damage in a forever war against “the terrorists”). To deny this would be hypocritical, and detrimental.

Second, no matter how much we try to distinguish between ISIS and those whose religion they use to justify their actions and recruit new followers, the use of such rhetoric will only serve to drive a further wedge between “us” and those who are susceptible to joining ISIS’s ranks to avenge our past acts of barbarity. Yet these future recruits are not currently barbarians; they have not yet been seduced by ISIS’s millennial ideology of killing, but are most likely men and women who simply feel alienated from our society.

By employing the rhetoric of “just war against barbarians”, we solidify the context for a perpetual war, and this makes it easy to forget that some (many?) amongst the swell of foreign fighters who shall become the targets of our drones were once members of our society, lured through predatory tactics to fight an “end of days” battle.

Maybe it is impossible to humanize those ISIS fighters who commit daily acts of unfathomable cruelty; but let us not forgo the humanity of those who are yet susceptible to joining their ranks. If we must wage a just war, the key to victory is framing it in such a way as to include the alienated amongst us.

Footnotes & References:

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/02/a-first-a-majority-of-americans-back-ground-troops-against-isis/385650/

[2] http://www.scribd.com/doc/255440137/Draft-ISIS-war-authorization-legislation

[3] http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/10/politics/transcript-obama-syria-isis-speech/

[4] http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/10/politics/transcript-obama-syria-isis-speech/

[5] http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/10/01/iraq-canada-combat_n_5917462.html,http://www.rtbf.be/info/medias/detail_prendre-parti-contre-ces-barbares-de-l-ei-derapage-du-directeur-de-france-24?id=8360074, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2940435/They-medieval-barbarians-ISIS-playing-sophisticated-game-winning.html

[6] http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/obama-vows-degrade-destroy-isis-steven-sotloff-execution-article-1.1925836; see also http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/barbarians-boehner-says-america-may-need-ground-troops-fight-isis-n213466

[7] On Vitoria’s relationship to the just war tradition and international law, see Alex J. Bellamy, A.J. Just Wars: From Cicero to Iraq (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006), pp. 50-55.

[8] Michael Walzer, Arguing About War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 4.

[9]Francisco de Vitoria, Political Writings, A. Pagden and J. Lawrance (eds.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 321.

[10] Ibid., p. 318.

[11] Nancy Bisaha, Creating East and West: Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), p. 70.


[13] For two conflicting vies on this matter, see Avery Plaw, “Counting the Dead: The Proportionality of Predation in Pakistan”, in Killing by Remote Control: The Ethics of an Unmanned Military, ed. Bradley. J. Strawser (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 126-53; and Megan Braun and Daniel R. Brunstetter, “Rethinking the Criterion for Assessing CIA-Targeted Killings: Drones, Proportionality and Jus Ad Vim”, Journal of Military Ethics 12, 4 (2013), pp. 304–324.

[14] Jeh Charles Johnson, Jr., “The Conflict Against Al Qaeda and its Affiliates: How Will It End?”, Speech to the Oxford Union, November 30, 2012, http://www.lawfareblog.com/2012/11/jeh-johnson-speech-at- the-oxford-union/ .

[15] http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/02/15/reactions-to-the-obama-administrations-isis-aumf/

[16] http://edition.cnn.com/2015/02/10/politics/isis-foreign-fighters-combat/index.html

[17] http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/e5f4397a-48cf-11e4-9d04-00144feab7de.html

[18] See Daniel Brunstetter and Dana Zartner, “Just War Against Barbarians: Revisiting the Valladolid Debates Between Sepúlveda and Las Casas”, Political Studies, 59, 3 (2011), pp. 733-52.

[19] Daniel R. Brunstetter, Tensions of Modernity: Las Casas and His Legacy in the French Enlightenment (New York: Routledge, 2012).

[20] Bartolomé de las Casas, In Defense of the Indians. Stafford Poole (tr.) (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1999), p. 47.

[21] Ibid., p. 336.

[22] Ibid., p. 173.

[23] Ibid., p. 172.

[24] Ibid., p. 184.

Daniel Brunstetter
Daniel Brunstetter
Daniel Brunstetter is associate professor in the department of political science at the University of California, Irvine. His work on the ethics of drones has appeared in Ethics & International Affairs, The Atlantic, the Journal of Military Ethics, and the International Journal of Human Rights. He has published more generally on the contemporary applications of the just war tradition in Political Studies, Raisons Politiques, International Relations, Review of International Studies and elsewhere. He is also the author of Tensions of Modernity: Las Casas and His Legacy in the French Enlightenment (Routledge, 2014). His current research focus is the use of limited force in contemporary politics.
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  • Bob Loblaw

    Love the analysis here- certainly air power alone will not “destroy” ISIS, or a least the recruiting base from which future organizations can draw from. However, I have two comments specifically about drones.

    1. “They can hit these targets with comparatively greater accuracy than other forms of air strikes, especially when targets are embedded in civilian areas.”

    Response: While it is true that drones can track targets, the weapons fired(Hellfire missles) are the same regardless of whether the aircraft firing them is manned or unmanned. The accuracy remains the same Targeting leaders for “decapitation” is not a new practice either. The United States tried to take out Milosevic in April of 1999 but his house was empty. The true determination of a strikes success is all dependent on the intelligence community, an attack is only as good as the intelligence supporting the strike.

    2.”In combatting ISIS, the U.S. has followed the precedent it set with drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen to pursue terrorist threats anywhere in the world. Thus, it has already carried out numerous strikes on key targets in Syria despite the fact that its allies, especially the UK, have resisted such a move.”

    Response: The drone strikes in Yemen were almost all carried out by the CIA, whereas the current bombings in Iraq are led by the Air Force. These organizations follow vastly different laws for armed combat.

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